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Archival Survival: California, Missouri, and Texas Archives Enhance Family Sleuthing      

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Written by Jeanne Rollberg

Are there things you’d like to learn about your great-great-grandfather as we celebrate Father’s Day this week?  Have you fully explored archives to flesh out his life? We family history researchers often give thanks for all of the critical documents and resources provided by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). We receive ancestor census and military records, among others, from NARA through various databases such as FamilySearch and Ancestry.com. If we’re lucky, we may even get to go on site to a NARA location.

As we seek more comprehensive information on ancestors, we can also use NARA’s helpful state archives contact lists and resources to pinpoint likely archives for our projects here.

It’s critical to remember: State archives provide records, artifacts, collections, newspapers and treasures that often document ancestors at the micro level. In this first part of a multi-part series, we’ll look at archives in California, Texas, and Missouri.

California State Archives

The California State Archives is overseen by the Secretary of State in Sacramento. On its Web site, it proudly notes that The Public Records Act was the very first law the first governor of the state signed into law in 1850. Of note especially for events within the last 100 years, such as America’s entry into World War I, is a special exhibit at the California Digital Archives : “California Goes to War: World War I and the Golden State.” Or if you’re interested in political history, you can find Robert F. Kennedy Assassination Investigation Records.

Seek a broad overview first. Use Minerva to check for research items online, and see processed collections information at the  Online Archive of California. Since California was critical in the development of the west and is noted for the state’s Gold Rush and Spanish/Mexican land grant periods, ancestors who were connected to either of those likely have documents related to them in some way at the archives. For example, if your great-grandfather was in railroading or mining, and helped set up companies to mine silver or gold, Articles of Incorporation may often be retrieved from the archives. Check Family History Resources for a variety of topics from historic county records to prison records to mental health records. You may also retrieve fascinating Supreme/ Appellate Court case information from 1850 forward from the California State Archives.

Texas State Archives

The State Archives of Texas is housed in Austin. See its resources here: Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Though collections here are broad, your family history eye will be drawn to “Genealogy Resources Available at Our Library.” Peruse those to determine what might be of interest for your ancestors.

On a more comprehensive historical basis, the Texas archives is divided into several periods of Texas history. For 1731-1820, there’s Spanish Texas, together with 1821-36 for the Mexican Texas period. For 1836-1845, there are records for  Republic of Texas, and then after that would be the state of Texas records from 1846 forward. The web site provides a list of Texas-specific online resources for researchers near the bottom of the lengthy genealogy resources page. There are even 55 passports from the Republic of Texas period! Particularly handy while getting an overview of resources is the Texas Digital Archive.  There you can find collections including very recent ones, such as Energy Secretary (and former Texas Governor) Rick Perry’s records. Note: Texas’ political history, including that of Presidents Lyndon Johnson, George Herbert Walker Bush, and George Bush may also be further investigated at the Texas presidential libraries in Austin, College Station, and Dallas overseen by NARA.

Missouri State Archives

The “Show-Me” state’s worthy archives is headquartered in Jefferson City, the state capital. You can learn about outlaw Jesse James, President Harry Truman’s life in Missouri, early French and Spanish land grants, and a lot more Missouri history.

Investigate resources here: Research. There’s a section there on Family and Community History. There are county and municipal records in the list. Did one of your ancestors die in Missouri while working on a railroad project, for example?  You can most likely retrieve his probate records here, either in person or via mail.  Were your ancestors in or near St. Louis? You may want to use the  Missouri State Archives – St. Louis link to take you to available resources.

The St. Louis branch of the archives is located in downtown St. Louis at the courthouse. According to the online information, “It primarily houses the 19th century records of the St. Louis Circuit Court. These records are being made available through the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project.”  

There are documents related to the famous Dred Scott case about slavery. Because you’re researching family history, you may well be interested in this very modern resource, too, related to actress Cynthia Nixon:    Martha Casto’s Story: As Featured on TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are?

Steps to Prep

Before you actually go to a state archives, preparation work helps. Because of the comprehensiveness of resources at archives and to make the best use of your own time as a researcher, it’s helpful to search archives collections online thoroughly. Contact the state archives at least a week before visiting to identify resources and ask questions.  

This helps archivists prepare materials in advance for your visit in some cases, and allows you to clear up any misunderstandings about what you’ll actually be able to examine there. Check the web sites to clarify rules about what is allowed into the archives (such as scanners, laptops, cameras, etc.). Archives generally require research supervision for information seekers because of the especially valuable historic information found there. You may well be in a carefully supervised room and may only be allowed to see a limited number of records or items at one time.

The second part of the Archival Survival series will be available July 8.


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